Mario’s Picross was my introduction to what has since become my favorite puzzle game genre. Although it released way back in 1995, I didn’t pick it up until about ten years later for just a few bucks used at GameStop. I soon became obsessed with hammering out squares to create a pixelated sprite of famous Mario characters and items. The initial offering didn’t go over too well in the U.S., despite having Mario’s name attached to the title. Luckily Nintendo and Jupiter took a chance on the market once again with the success of the Nintendo DS and ever since we’ve had a steady stream of games come out for Nintendo platforms.
Over the years there have been plenty of imitators, but few had the right combination of audiovisual prowess of the official games. Now we’re seeing plenty of other companies incorporate elements of this puzzle solving into their games. By far the best I have played is Mediatonic’s Murder By Numbers. They have managed to take a graphic novel mystery adventure game and blend it with Picross puzzles to create a masterpiece. From the awesome character illustrations to the absolutely amazing soundtrack, this one is packed with content that’s sure to keep your eyes glued to the screen for a long time to come.
Murder By Numbers puts you in the starring role of Honor Mizrahi, a ‘90s actress on the detective TV show, Murder Miss Terri (get ready for plenty of puns throughout). The game opens up with you being unexpectedly let go for mysterious reasons and before you can get answers your boss is murdered. You now have to clear your name and find out who killed him. Was it the bratty lead actress Becky who seems to have it in for you? Or maybe it was the handyman, or the stylist, or even the geeky super fan that somehow made it past security and was unhappy with the past season’s storyline?
It’s up to you to solve the case by interrogating the suspects and searching the area for clues, and that’s where SCOUT comes in handy. He’s a robot that has scanning functionality and can detect objects throughout the environments. Really he’s a flying computer screen that has had his memory wiped, so there’s yet another mystery you’ll solve as the story progresses. Indeed, even though this game is set in the mid ‘90s there are all sorts of strange and over the top storyline beats that you’ll just have to roll with. The writing is witty and I laughed out loud pretty frequently at the absurd plot twists and crazy dialog. Just the idea that a flying sentient robot is allowed to roam about freely already means you’ll just need to go with the flow.
Once SCOUT joins your team you can use him to scan the area for clues. You move a cursor around the screen and his sensors will start beeping when you’re close to some evidence. Once found you’ll then go the Picross puzzle solving mode where you create a pixelated object that will then offer up a clue. As you gather more items you can go back to the characters and question them about the things you’ve found, which will eventually progress the story and more of the mystery will unravel. The game doesn’t support touch screen controls so you’ll be using your Joy-Cons or Pro Controller throughout.
Simply meshing two types of game genres together rarely has spectacular results, but it works amazingly well here. The whole game is held together by the fantastic writing and character building. By the end of the first act I found myself genuinely caring for Honor and SCOUT and was 100% invested in the story. Each of the four chapters features a new murder to solve, but recurring characters and storyline twists manage to link the stories together, creating a cohesive narrative throughout. As you solve more puzzles you’ll eventually gain enough points to unlock some of SCOUT’s fragmented memories, which are more Picross puzzles that you solve to unlock his past. One of the concerns I had going into the game was its longevity – how long would the game take to beat? If you are familiar with visual novels and Picross games then you can probably expect the game to last about 15-20 hours. If you’re new to either you can probably tack on a few more, but either way there’s plenty of game to chew through here.
Picross games aren’t known for extravagant graphics, since they mostly consist of a grid that you fill in to create a picture. Murder By Numbers has the best presentation of any of these games I’ve ever seen. Of course the visual novel aspect looks fantastic, even though most of the characters only have two or three different poses. Don’t expect intricately detailed animations or anything here – this is a $15 game after all. Special props to the intro movie though, as that gives us a glimpse of something we could see in a $60 full budget game. The game features bright colors and detailed environments. The ‘90s aesthetic is on full display with huge cell phones and a fashion statement to be reckoned with. Even the actual Picross puzzle screens are nicely detailed with clear and concise UI that really stands out. Really the only quibble I have from the presentation side of things is that when I finally solved the puzzle I had no idea what the picture was supposed to be until the game proudly displayed the text of the object below it, and even then sometimes it felt like a stretch. Depixtion does a better job in this regard, but it’s unfortunately a common occurrence with most Picross games.
Anyone who personally knows me, reads my reviews, or listens to our podcasts will know that I’m a huge fan of video game soundtracks. Music plays an integral role in my enjoyment of video games. I’m happy to report that Murder By Numbers features a killer soundtrack that managed to bore its way into my brain with its memorable tunes. Like any good memorable soundtrack, the musicians found a way to incorporate the main theme song into many of the other tracks and this repetition really takes hold after just a few hours with the game. The main jingle is upbeat and catchy and I found myself humming along more than once. This is all the more impressive in a puzzle game like this where in the past I’ve had to turn off the background music because it was so bad. With several different tunes that will play via the different puzzles I never grew tired of them, despite hearing each over and over again. This is all thanks to the wonderful composer, Masakazu Sugimori, who worked on games like Viewtiful Joe, Ghost Trick, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. The entire soundtrack is a pleasant surprise in an already awesome game.
Fans of either visual novel games or Picross titles simply must pick up Murder By Numbers. Newcomers should still consider the purchase if you enjoy murder mysteries and over the top storylines. I mean, where else are you going to see someone get killed by a giant sized stiletto that’s part of a gay pride float? I found the game to perfectly balance the exposition with the puzzles and was captivated throughout the entire experience thanks to the endearing characters and crazy plot points. This one’s a winner from beginning to end!
Murder By Numbers Review
- Graphics - 9/109/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 10/1010/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
Murder By Numbers combines Picross puzzle solving with graphic novel gameplay and completely nails the experience thanks to its hilarious writing, endearing characters, awesome visuals, and stellar soundtrack. Fans of either genre should fall in love with this game, and newcomers will find a game that’s approachable and addicting.